The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living

Tourists on a cruise ship docked at Valletta, Malta. Source: Flickr.

by Miriam Lang

We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.

For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation  of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.

One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare

But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building  new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This  could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.

 

It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South

The left  focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?

Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with  positive connotations of  personal choice  and self-determination.

It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address  what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with  “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions.  People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive  social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.

At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.

The container port at Fos-Sur-Mer, France.

 

Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?

The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter

The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it  refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.

This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.

Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?

New perceptions of the good life

A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.

Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative  lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally  question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”

Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn  that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.

In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.

Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.

Considering social welfare globally

Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.

If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.

Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.

The cruise ship Royal Princess at port in Gibraltar. Photo: Tony Evans.

A version of this article first appeared on Degrowth.de.

Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.

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A lifetime opposing the US military on Okinawa

Japanese police carrying away a protester. Photo: Eliza Egret

by Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

There are eighty of us sitting down, linking arms, blocking the gates of a US military base. Private security guards are lined up behind us, while men in uniform film us from behind barbed-wire fences. Suddenly, Japanese police officers pile out of their vans in their dozens. They grab a protester, a woman in her seventies. She goes limp and screams “US bases out of Okinawa!” as they carry her away. Anguish is written on her face. We desperately hold onto each other, knowing that we’re also about to be grabbed. We try to resist the police prying our arms apart. One by one, we’re removed from the gates and put into a police pen. It takes forty-five minutes to remove us all.   

As anti-militarist activists, we visited the Japanese island of Okinawa in August 2017 to join the protests against US military bases. Over the course of the week, we join these sit-ins three times a day, every day. The number of people at the protests ranges from 20 to 200. Many activists are in their seventies or eighties. People chant and sing Okinawan protest songs as they wait for the police to drag them away. We get bruises and sore arms from the force of the officers.

In July 2014, the people of Okinawa began blockading the gates of Camp Schwab, a US military base situated in Henoko village, to try to prevent its expansion. Since then, activists have come from all over Japan, and occasionally from around the world, to join locals in preventing construction materials and vehicles from entering the site. Many protesters have been arrested, and several have been imprisoned for anti-base activities.  

The plans for Henoko include the relocation of an existing US military facility to Camp Schwab and the building of a runway and helipads on the ocean, directly on top of a coral reef. The runway will have disastrous consequences for Oura bay, a fragile aquatic ecosystem home to many unique species. The population of endangered dugong and green turtles will also be threatened. The costs of the construction at Camp Schwab are paid for by the Japanese government.

In 1997, a referendum found that the majority of local people opposed the plans for the base. In 2007, a survey indicated that 85% of the population of Okinawa were against  the new construction. Despite this, the Japanese government and US military are pressing ahead with their plans.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the US invaded Okinawa. One in four Okinawans were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, the US military took over the Japanese military bases on the island. They have had a presence there ever since.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, the US began a military occupation of the whole country. When power was handed back to the Japanese government in 1952, it was on the condition  that the occupation of Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu islands continued. The US military wanted Okinawa as a strategic base to dominate China and Southeast Asia. Okinawa had been under US military rule for 27 years, until the island was brought back under Japanese control in 1972.

Although the US occupation had officially ended, its military personnel never left Japan. There are approximately 50,000 US military personnel in Japan, over half of whom remain stationed in Okinawa. Okinawa houses 70% of US military bases in the country, but covers only 0.6% of the country’s landmass. US bases occupy a massive 18% of the land on the island.

Since the occupation of Japan, Japanese governments have followed a policy of strategic alliance with US militarism. This means that the government will not oppose US bases on Japanese soil.

The US military has made its presence felt. Islanders are subjected to daily Osprey helicopter flights, which cause stress, sleep deprivation, and noise pollution. Forty-five Ospreys have crashed on the island since 1972. Military vehicles are a regular sight on the streets and soldiers use the north of the island, including the places where people live, for armed jungle training. US marines have been responsible for over a thousand violent crimes on the island since 1972, including rapes and murders. The US have tested the chemical toxin Agent Orange on Okinawa.

The demonstrations outside Camp Schwab would not exist if it weren’t for the older population of Okinawa, some of whom attend the sit-ins three times per day. 71 year old Hiroshi Ashitomi is a respected elder of the campaign. He makes enthusiastic speeches over the microphone, giving courage to those who are about to be removed by the police. Ashitomi agreed to talk to us about what it’s like to live with the military presence in Okinawa, and about the opposition to the base. He speaks to us in Japanese as an activist friend translates for us.

Hiroshi Ashitomi. Photo: Eliza Egret

Can you tell us about your childhood?

I was born in 1946, just after World War Two. My father went to university in Tokyo and he couldn’t return to Okinawa during the war. So I was born in Tokyo. When I was fifteen years old I came back to Okinawa. The US military was here.

How did the military occupation affect your family?

Under US occupation all of Okinawa was poor. Okinawan people were farmers but lots of land was taken by the military. The US military have a big base, Camp Hansen, in Kin, where my family lived. More than half of my father’s land was taken by the US army base. The US military compensated us for the land but it was not good money.

Can you tell us about the seizures of land by the military?

The Japanese military took Okinawan people’s land during the Second World War. After the war, the US military took control of the Japanese bases. During the Korean and Vietnam wars the US military took more and more land for their bases. They took it by force, using bulldozers and bearing arms. The people didn’t have any choice but to give up their land. There was no democracy and they colonised Okinawa. There were no rights for the people. That’s why Okinawan people have always protested against the military.

At that time the idea of Okinawan independence wasn’t very common, so we were fighting for Okinawa to return to Japan.

During the Vietnam war some US soldiers ran away from the US military, and Okinawan people supported them.

Photo: Eliza Egret

What happened when the occupation ended and Okinawa returned to Japan?

When Okinawa was returned to Japan the situation didn’t change at all. The US miltary bases remained. Now the Japanese government is against us, too. The Japanese government will never say no to the US military.

Can you explain the effects of the continued US military presence on the people in Okinawa?

The military have been responsible for rapes, murders, road-traffic accidents and drunk driving. One small example of the behaviour of the military is that sometimes soldiers don’t pay taxi drivers.  They get out of taxi at the gate and run into the base without paying.

The military also causes environmental pollution, and there is noise pollution from helicopters. At night, after 10pm, they fly over our houses while people are trying to sleep.

In 1995, three US soldiers raped a 13 year old girl. People were very angry and the anti-base movement got bigger and bigger.

Two and a half years ago a female US soldier was raped at Camp Schwab. Afterwards she committed suicide.

In 2016, a 20 year old Okinawan woman, Rina Shimabukoro, was raped and killed by a former US marine. It was really terrible. Many more rape cases are happening in Okinawa and are not reported. As long as the US military is here it will keep happening again and again.

Could you tell us about the resistance to the expansion of the US base at Henoko?

After we heard about the new plans, in 1997, people in Nago city organised a residents’ referendum to decide whether they would say yes or no to the new plan. More than half of the people voted no. That referendum was very confusing for the people because many of them worked for the company that would get the base construction contract. It was hard for the workers and their family to say no because they might have lost their jobs and also because the base construction would have given them work. But still over 50% voted no.

Poster against the expanded US base in Okinawa. Source: Okinawa Peace Support

Since then, what strategies have people used to oppose the new base construction?

We have to show the US government that we don’t agree. The Okinawan governor has visited the US government to send the voice of Okinawan people many times.

In 2004, activists began using kayaks to monitor the military base from the sea. A tent was set up by the beach where people came to learn about peace, and about the history of Okinawa.  

Three years ago, when they started bringing the construction vehicles in, a protest tent and sit-in at the gates of Camp Schwab started. Police come and take us away but we sit again and again. We try to show the world and the government that we’ll never give up. That’s our motto: never give up.

Our protest is based on non-violence. The network of people in Okinawa against the US military includes local businesses and conservative people, not only activists but ordinary people. If we didn’t have mainstream support the police would destroy the protest very quickly. Non-violent tactics are important to get more people to support the protest in Henoko.  

How do you keep going?

We try to come up with new ideas for the protests and keep doing it. It’s very hard protesting every day. But if we gave up, nothing would change.

It must be very stressful for the older people to be physically removed by the police every day, yet they make up the most numbers at the protests. Can you explain why?

Older people, even older than me, experienced the Battle of Okinawa during World War Two and they know how terrible it was. Under the US military occupation we suffered a lot of abuse and discrimination. So we know how to survive in this situation. That generation of older people have more passion than the younger people because they don’t want to see the same situation ever again. That’s why they sit there every day.

Do people in Okinawa want international support at the sit-ins?

We have to unite internationally otherwise we cannot win against the power of the US. We also need foreign media to come, interview people and spread information.

I just heard that the network of groups against the US bases in Okinawa received an international peace prize in Germany. So we know that international people are watching what happens here.

It’s good if international people can come and join us on the demonstrations, but please arrange a translator!

Would it be good for people internationally to hold solidarity demonstrations outside US embassies and consulates?

Yes, this would be very welcome. Donations would also be welcome. We need money to organise transport for the demonstrators and to pay for lawyers when people are arrested.

A women taken away at a protest. Photo: Eliza Egret

There are daily shuttle buses from Naha city, close to Okinawa’s airport and port, to the sit-in at Henoko. If you are interested in joining the protests in Okinawa, and would like to know more, email eliza@shoalcollective.org and tom@shoalcollective.org.

Here is a list of some of the Japanese websites with information about the protests in Okinawa:

https://henokoblue.wordpress.com/ – The blog of the kayak team monitoring the base in Henoko.

http://takae.ti-da.net – for info about the movement against helipad construction in Takae, in the North of Okinawa.

http://apjjf.org/ – Has some interesting articles in English about Okinawa.

 

Eliza and Tom are both part of Shoal Collective, a new cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Follow Shoal Collective’s writing on Twitter @ShoalCollective